Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping

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Farmers’ market season isn’t quite over yet, and we’re actually lucky enough to have a market close by that goes all winter long. It took me almost a year from the first time I ever stepped foot in a farmers’ market (which was just at the beginning of last year!) to figure out there is definitely a method to the madness. So following are some of our best tips to help you navigate and optimize your local market!

Matthews Farmers' Market near Charlotte, NC

  1. Find and shop at a grower’s only farmers’ market. This ensures all products are local. Here in Charlotte we love the Matthews Farmers’ Market (pictured) because it is the biggest grower’s only market in the area. I once went to the Charlotte Regional Farmers’ Market, which allows third party vendors, and saw blueberries from Chile for sale.
  2. Ask if the market manager sends out an email or newsletter showing what you can expect to find on upcoming market days because it can be a big help with meal planning.
  3. Arrive as close to the opening time as possible because the “good stuff” can run out fast. I also prioritize my shopping list. For example, if it is the first weekend that greenhouse tomatoes or field-grown corn are available, I go to those vendors first because I know they’ll be gone in no time.
  4. On the flip side if you show up at the end of the market you might find some smashing deals because I guarantee no farmer wants to take their produce back to the farm.
  5. Map out which farmers are certified organic or are not necessarily certified but follow organic practices and be sure to give them most of your business. All you have to do is ask if they use chemical pesticides/fertilizers or more natural methods instead and if you’re at a grower’s only market they will surely know the answer. If you find yourself struggling between the choice of local/conventional produce vs. organic/well-traveled produce…I hate to tell you there is no perfect choice.
  6. If you have kids let them tag along and give them a buck or two to buy something. My 6-year-old daughter would never eat cucumbers at home, but for some reason she likes to buy one herself at the market and take a couple big bites out of it while we are shopping!
  7. If you are looking for something specific ask questions like…Does anyone sell ground beef around here? Do you know where I can find goat cheese? Just because you don’t see a sign for something doesn’t mean they don’t sell it.
  8. Don’t be fooled by the baked goods. Sure the muffins for sale are a far better option than the highly processed ones you’ll find at Starbucks, but chances are most of them are still full of refined grains and sweeteners (like sugar) so just know what you are buying.  It all goes back to asking questions!
  9. Don’t forget to bring cash and reusable shopping bags or a cooler with ice packs if it is a hot day.
  10. Enjoy the sense of community and get to know the hand that grows the food you feed your precious family!

If you have any other tips of your own please leave them in the comments below.

Related posts:
How far does your produce travel?
Mini-Pledge Week 11: Eat Local Foods


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64 comments to Real Food Tips: 10 Pointers for Farmers’ Market Shopping

  • Terra

    Is it possible for Lisa or Jill to share a list of organic farmers (whether certified or not) that sell at the Matthews Farmers Market? For those of us that are in the Charlotte area (& have recently become addicted to this blog and are making big changes!:-)), I thought that a helpful guide from someone who has already asked all of the farms about their growing practices would be great! I definitely plan to start shopping at the Matthews market and would love to have a cheat sheet of Lisa’s favorite organic farmers. In the interim I will be asking as suggested. Thanks!!

    • Lisa

      Hi there! As I sat here and thought about your question I realized I don’t even know most of the farm names by heart…we shop by booth location and familiar faces (kind of like giving driving directions when you realize you don’t know any road names!). I did go on the market website though and looked at their vendor list to help jog my memory and these are most of them that I am PRETTY sure follow organic practices. Hopefully it’s at least a start for you:
      - Big Oak Natural Farm (seasonal produce) Fred Mundie
      - Carlea Farms (seasonal produce) Carl and Leah Wagner
      - Fisher Farms (heirloom tomatoes and seasonal produce) Dane Fisher
      - Grateful Growers Farm (pastured pork and poultry products) Natalie Veres
      - New Town Farms Organic (certified organic seasonal produce, free-range chicken eggs) Sam Koenigsberg
      - Tega Hills Farm (hydroponic lettuces, micro greens, tomatoes and other assorted produce) Mindy and Mark Robinson

  • I started going to farmers markets this summer. I usually like the food, but I am finding a less than desirable experience due to the attitude and rudeness of some of the vendors. I find it a bit infuriating because I am spending extra to support local farms and our local economy. It seems the prices are so hard to find, vendors turn their nose at you if you don’t buy right then (ie. price compare), people butting in front of your in line (oh yeah while I am sporting a crying baby!), and finding out info about how the food was grown can be like pulling teeth sometimes. Something that used to be a fun family outing has turned into a hassle. I hate to say it because I really believe in supporting local food. Anyone else experienced the same? Please tell me the market is an anomaly.

    • Mandi,
      yes, I have had this experience! I used to go to this poultry stand that met all my credientals, but the man in charge of it was R-U-D-E! Their poultry products was WONDERFUL, some of the best I’ve ever had, but the fact that the man running it would constantly look at me like I was stuck on stupid and answer my questions about his products and other vendors like it was paining him to converse with me made me take my buisness elsewhere!And he would not even bother talking to my kids! Oh, and special requests on how to cut the meat? A big inconvience to HIS day!
      I ended up finding another poultry stand around the corner and down some from him, that’s not quite 100% up to my standard, but the guy is beyond nice and has no issue with special requests, talking to my kids or anything!He’s brutally honest with how he produces his polutry products,too, which helps. He makes us enjoy going to the farmer’s market again and gave me the hope I needed to keep going. My advice is don’t give up. If you’re going to a (bigger) farmer’s market, try finding a smaller one, or looking at other stands there. Not everyone at that particular farmer’s market may act that way. Good luck! :)

  • Nikki

    Hello, I’m new to this site and I love what I’m reading. Interested in trying to take the 10 day real food pledge, hoping on a college student budget I can do it! However I did have a question, what is the difference between a Grower only and Producer only Farmers Markets?

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Nikki. Honestly, I’ve perused various sites looking for something definitive and have come up with very similar ways of defining each. Both seemed to be growers, producers, creators of the products they sell…not third parties? Any readers with other info, please chime in. ~Amy

  • Alana

    We have a few grower’s only markets here, but I’m always so intimidated by them. So, I walk through and leave! I went last weekend looking mainly for eggs and left with nothing! I KNOW several vendors sell them because they are on the website, but because there was no one yelling “EGGS! GET YOUR EGGS HERE!” I guess I didn’t find them. I have now found a great egg supplier through Craigslist, so my next goal is local honey!

  • charity

    Ask the berry farmers if they have “pie berries” as these will not be as pretty but you can get them at a deep discount. If you are using them for smoothies, baked goods & berry sauces….these are the way to go! :)

  • Jenny

    I’m curious how you know the vendors are telling you the truth about their pesticide use. Wouldn’t it be really easy for them just to tell you what you want to hear in order to get your business?

  • Tricia

    Jenny – I’ve wondered the same thing! I love my local farmers market, but the skeptic in me can’t help but wonder who these people are and why I should trust them.

  • Hi Lisa- thanks for all these great practical tips. I too have felt overwhelmed. I wrote up a post about how I learned to navigate the farmers market with some more tips. Like you, I hope that I can inspire others to enjoy the healthy bounty that is available.

  • [...] come from small, local and/or organic farmers. So be sure to get those Green Light Foods from the farmers’ market – or look for the word “organic” on the [...]

  • [...] I used to buy standard grocery store chicken this was never an issue, but now that I shop at the farmers’ market I’ve found that almost all of the local meat is sold frozen. And just the other day I was [...]

  • Caree

    We really don’t have very many farmer’s markets around here to choose from, but I did try to use a local butcher shop once (instead of getting meats from the big box stores that came from who knows where). But one time I tried to ask some questions and the lady immediately started acting like she was being interrogated. Me: Can you tell me where the meats came from? Her: With startled expression: Depends on who’s asking!….why do you want to know???? Oooooooo’k nevermind then…. Haven’t been back since.

  • Sadly there are no growers-only farmers markets in Calgary, so you have to be careful with your shopping. You cannot assume that everything is locally grown/produced and neither can you assume that it is all organic or follows organic production practices – there is one stall at the Calgary Farmers Market that sells imported fruit and vegetables from Mexico for example.

    One tip I would add… talk to the stall holders and get to know them. We get discounts at several stalls because we chat to them every wee. And one time, we were not only talking to the stall owner, but to a potential customer and extolling the virtue of his product. We scored a free packet of elk liver because we got him a sale!

  • I am a local farmer that sells at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. And yes, we use organic growing methods. You can find other farmers that are doing the same there. There is a huge group of farmers that go to Charlotte Regional Farmers Market every Saturday morning. Now when they sell out they leave. So, if you get there at 11am, you might not find that many “organic” farmers still there. As of right now (July 2013), there aren’t any certified organic farmers at that market that I know of. But there are a number of ones that use organic growing methods. Here are the ones I can remember.

    Shady Creek Farm – Dallas, NC –
    Laughing Owl Farm – Richfield, NC – find him on
    A Way of Life Farm – Bostic, NC –
    A Little Bit of Heaven – Vale, Nc
    Underwood Family Farm – vale, NC
    Glencora Farm – Grover, NC
    Lost Arrow Ranch – Ellenboro, NC –
    Spellcast Farm – Maiden, NC –
    Rosemary Pete Herbs – Charlotte, NC
    Grateful Growers – Lincolnton, NC –
    Baucom’s Best –
    Windy Hill Farm – Albemarle, NC
    Bountiful Harvest Farm –
    New Town Farm

    I know I’m leaving someone off. but that list will get you started. You need to get to know your farmer. Most farmers that truly use organic methods have a sign telling you so. Also, most of those farmers above have an email newsletter you can sign up to get a weekly email finding out what they’ll be bringing to market and a little about what happened that week at the farm. Also, only a few farmers are in the big enclosed building at the Charlotte Regional Market. Most of the farmers are in the open shed. Please don’t stay away from the Charlotte Regional Market just to only avoid the not grower only market. You shouldn’t have to travel 30 more minutes out of your way to go to a grower only market. I hope this helps.

  • [...] Prices turned out to only be slightly higher at Whole Foods (depending on what you are buying) when compared to one of their local competitors, Earth Fare. Luckily, you can find many of these items cheaper elsewhere, but it just takes a little effort. I like to keep shopping costs down by buying staples in bulk on the internet, going directly to local farms and visiting farmer’s markets. [...]

  • [...] I figured out that the “good” eggs are the local ones found at the farmers’ market (that come in all different colored shells by the way, including white). I learned that in most [...]

  • I love living in Florida because the growing season is year round and so are the farmer’s markets. It’s so much easier to get high quality local produce and so much more. (I also like the sunshine and warm weather, but that’s not what this post is about.) *wink*

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